Security officials are reporting that Islamic State (IS) militants have shifted to desert valleys and inland hills southeast of the capital Tripoli in their bid to exploit the North African country’s political divisions in the wake of their defeat in their former stronghold of Sirte.
Officials have disclosed that the militants, who are believed to number several hundred, are now attempting to foment chaos by cutting power supplies and identifying receptive local communities. While they are being monitored by aerial surveillance and on-the-ground intelligence, Libyan officials have noted that they cannot be easily targeted without advanced air power.
While for more than a year, IS exercised total control over Sirte, building its primary North African base in the coastal city, it struggled to keep a footing elsewhere in the country. By December 2016, it was forced out of Sirte after a six-month campaign, which was led by brigades from the western city of Misrata and backed by US air strikes. During that battle, IS lost many of its fighters and it currently holds no territory in Libya. However militants who managed to escape last year’s fighting and sleeper cells are now seen to pose a threat in the country, which had been deeply fractured and which remains largely lawless in the wake of the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
Ismail Shukri, head of military intelligence in Misrata, has reported that the threat is now focussed south of the coastal strip between Misrata and Tripoli, arcing to the southeast around the town of Bani Walid and into the desert south of Sirte. According to Shukri, one group, comprised of 60 – 80 militants, is operating around Girza, which is located 170 km (105 miles) west of Sirte; while another group of about 100 militants is based around Zalla and Mabrouk oil field, which is located about 300 km southeast of Sirte. He added that there are also reports of a third group present in Al-Uwaynat, which is located close to the border with Algeria. Mohamed Gnaidy, an intelligence officer with forces that conducted the campaign in Sirte, has disclosed that “they work and move around in small groups. They only use two or three vehicles at a time and they move at night to avoid detection.
France warned in early September that so-called Islamic State (IS) group fighters could flee towards Egypt and Tunisia after being flushed from their former Libyan stronghold of Sirte.
Speaking on 5 September during a defense conference in Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that “we should begin to look seriously at the question of the spread of the terrorists once Sirte…(is) emptied of the terrorists.” He further disclosed that “they don’t disappear. There’s a new risk that appears,” adding, “indirectly this will pose new risks for Tunisia and Egypt.” He also indicated that it was a “shame, perhaps political reasons prevent it, that all the neighbouring states of Libya don’t meet” over the issue.
Le Drian’s Tunisian counterpart, Farhat Horchani, has also called for effective regional coordination. Horchani, who attended the same defense conference in Paris, stated, “we have a large number of foreign fighters who arrived from Sirte, or from Syria. I can see no strategy, no cooperation between the states,” to deal with the problem.”
Forces loyal to Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been backed by weeks of US air strikes, have recaptured nearly all of what had been the jihadists’ main stronghold in the North African country. On 3 September, pro-GNA forces launched a new attack against IS in Sirte, reporting the following day that it could take several days to gain full control of the city.
IS took advantage of the chaos in oil-rich Libya in the wake of the 2011 uprising. They went on to seize Sirte in June 2015, which sparked fears that the jihadists would use it as a springboard for attacks on Europe. While the loss of Sirte would be a reversal for IS, French and US figures indicate that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 jihadists that remain in Libya, with one French security source disclosing that many “have evaporated in th south of he country.”
After months of fighting, militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) are on the verge of being completely ousted from their stronghold in Libya’s central coastal city of Sirte.
In May of this year, milita groups aligned to the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) launched an operation aimed at forcing IS from Sirte and regaining control of the city. More recently, after weeks of stagnating, the battle to expel the jihadist group has achieved more success with the held of US air strikes, which were launched at the beginning of this month at the request of the GNA. As of 29 August, the US has carried out 77 air strikes on the city, and while it has damaged the jihadists’ position in Sirte, it does not mean the end for their presence in the North African country.
Why is Losing Sirte Important?
IS took complete control of Sirte in June 2015 after being pushed out of its initial stronghold of Derna, which is located in Libya’s far east, by rival militias aligned with al-Qaeda. The loss of Sirte, which is IS’ stronghold in Libya, would effectively be a blow to the group’s image. In IS propaganda, the jihadist group has repeatedly portrayed the city, which is close to Western Europe, as a key position outside its main areas of operation in Iraq and Syria. As it has held control of the city, IS has transformed buildings in Sirte into its own institutions and prisons and has used the local radio station to air its propaganda. Control of the city also brought IS close to the country’s oil-rich area.
Does IS Have Any Other Strongholds in Libya?
No it does not, however IS remains present elsewhere in the country. In the second city of Benghazi, IS militants have long been fighting other forces and have recently launched a number of attacks on its western outskirts.
How Many IS militants are in Libya?
While there are no reliable figures about the number of IS militants currently in Libya, it has been estimated that the group has about 5,000 fighters in th country, man y of whom are thought to have been deployed in Sirte.
What Does IS Do Next?
IS has been caught on the back foot and the militant group may initially move into desert areas, revert to earlier tactics. Prior to losing its stronghold in Derna, the group made its presence felt elsewhere in Libya by carrying out repeated bombings in the key cities of Tripoli and Benghazi as well as targeting oil installations partly run by Western companies. As it puts up resistance, IS has again been employing suicide bombings as a means of attack.
Where Might IS Go Next?
Some analysts believe that IS fighters may flee to remote areas in the southern region of the country. If they choose this route, they could head for the Sahel-Sahara area, where other jihadists are present and operate relatively freely. However Libya’s importance to IS effectively means that the militant group may eventually regroup and emerge in another part of the country, seeking again to take control of land, which they can then showcase as a major gain. Analysts believe that the town of Bani Walid is one option for IS fighters, with local media recently reporting that air strikes hit a road in th city’s southeast, which reports disclosed was “often used” by is fighters.
The militants make seek to boost their forces in and around Benghazi, or they may head west towards Sabratha. While IS used to run a large training camp in that region, the site may no longer appeal the jihadist group as it was the target of a US air strike in February 2016. Yet another option is the town of Ajdabiya, which is located between Sirte and Benghazi. IS previously had a presence in the town, however it is believed that if they were to establish themselves there, the would have to confront al-Qaeda-linked rivals and the Libyan National Army of the Tobruk-based parliament.
What is evident is that IS is facing mounting pressure and US airstrikes in Libya, which may result in them struggling to create a new stronghold in the country.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group moved into Libya in 2014, amidst the chaos that followed the ouster of Moamer Kadhafi in 2011. On 1 August 2016, at the request of Libya’s unity government, United States warplanes carried out their first air strikes on positions in the IS bastion of Sirte.
Below are key dates of IS’ presence in Libya:
First Jihadist Attacks
- 19 November 2014 – The US says that it is “concerned” by reports that radical extremists with avowed ties to IS are destabilizing eastern Libya, having already seized vast areas of territory in Iraq and Syria.
- 27 December 2014 – IS claims responsibility for a car bombing outside the diplomatic security building in Tripoli. The attack causes no casualties.
- 27 January 2015 – IS claims responsibility for an attack on Tripoli’s luxury Corinthia Hotel, in which nine people, including five foreigners, are killed.
Since January 2015, IS has carried out a number of suicide attacks, including the February 2015 attack in Al-Qoba, near the eastern town of Derna, which killed 44 people; and the January 2016 attack that targeted a police school in Zliten, east of Tripoli, which killed more than 50 people.
IS Videos of Killings
- 15 February 2015 – IS releases a video depicting the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, in which all but one was Egyptian. The militant group states that the act was filmed in January. Egypt carried out air strikes on IS in its then stronghold of Derna.
- 19 April 2015 – A new video shows the execution-style killing of 28 Christians originally from Ethiopia.
IS Seizes Sirte
- 9 June 2015 – IS announces that it has captured Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. The city is the hometown of Kadhafi.
- 12 July 2015 – After weeks of fierce fighting with Derna’s Mujahedeen Council, IS finally acknowledges that it has been pushed out of the town.
First US Strikes
- 13 November 2015 – The US bombs IS leaders in Libya for the first time, stating that it killed Abu Nabil, an Iraqi also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi. Libyan officials identify him as the IS chief in Derna.
- 19 February 2016 – A US air strike on a jihadist training camp near Sabratha, which is located west of Tripoli, kills about fifty people.
- 24 February 2016 – Some 200 jihadists briefly occupy central Sabratha before being ousted by militias.
Offensive on Sirte
- 30 March 2016 – Despite the hostility of rival authorities, the head of Libya’s UN-backed unity government, Fayez al-Sarraj, arrives in Tripoli.
- 12 May 2016 – A vast offensive to recapture Sirte is launched by forces loyal to the unity government.
- 4 June 2016 – Unity government forces say that they have retaken a jihadist air base located south of Sirte.
- 9 June 2016 – Government forces enter the centre of Sirte and besiege the jihadists.
- 23 July 2016 – Loyalist forces say that they have seized a building used by IS to manufacture explosives.
- 1 August 2016 – Sarraj confirms that the US has carried out airstrikes on IS positions in Sirte for the first time. He indicates that the move was at the request of the unity government. A US senior administration official disclosed that American troops will not take part in any ground operations in support of the government.
Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti disclosed last week the the Italian government is ready to “positively evaluate” any request for air base or air space use in the US airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) militants in Libya if that would yield “a more rapid and effective end” to the campaign.
The minister made the comments in response to questions in the Chamber of Deputies about the airstrikes, which were launched on the IS stronghold town of Sirte. Pinotti further disclosed that the US military action, which began last week “will be limited in time and area of operation, doesn’t foresee the use of ground forces and is limited to allowing the Libyan forces to successfully defeat the terrorist forces in the area of Sirte,” adding, “the government is ready to positively evaluate any request for use of bases and air space if that would be functional to a more rapid and effective conclusion to the operation underway.” She noted that so far, the US airstrikes have not involved flights over Italian territory however she added that Premier Matteo Renzi’s government “contends that the success of the fighting aimed at eliminating terroristic centres of ISIS (IS) in Libya is of fundamental importance for the security not just of that country, but also of Europe and Italy.”
On Tuesday 2 August, Italy’s foreign minister disclosed that stabilizing Libya would also help control the migrant crisis. Migrant smugglers have exploited conflict and chaos in Libya to launch boats from its long Mediterranean coast carrying hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers and other refugees from Africa and the Middle East to Italian shores.
Premier Renzi has in the passed repeatedly stressed that Italy would support anti-IS action in Libya only if the UN-brokered unity government requested such raids. Earlier this year, the Italian government disclosed that armed US drones could use the Sigonella base if needed to protect US military forces in anti-IS strikes in Libya however it stressed that it would not allow the Sicilian base to be used for offensive purposes. US President Barack Obama authorized the Pentagon to open a new, more persistent front against IS insurgents in Libya after the internationally backed government asked for help with precision targeting inside Sirte.